Sleepless Nights

By Sgt. Nancy M. Dowdy (ret.)  

Well, the holidays have finally passed and it’s a new year.  Like many of you, I spent the last few days of the year relishing in the beauty that can be seen during the holidays.  Those much anticipated presents have been opened and played with for hours, out of town relatives have returned to their hometowns, life is easing back to “normal.”  There are many things I remember about Christmas over the years.  I remember working many of them, missing that Christmas morning joy as I patrolled the streets of my city.  It is something I do appreciate now, even on nights like these.  While there is so much to look back on with regret, something about a quiet house in the middle of the night and a beautiful Christmas tree makes it seem like everything will be alright.

Tonight I woke up because I had a dream.  One of many dreams that seems to swing through once in awhile.  I suppose that we should not call them “dreams” so much as “memories” that weave their way into our restful moments.  This started me down a path of remembering all the people I have encountered in my career.  Not all of the people, but specifically the dead ones.  I started trying to remember the first dead body call I’d ever responded to, and of course like many of you, I remembered it perfectly.  For me, it was such a simple call and there was nothing really horrific about it, but it was my first dead body, something most rookie cops never forget.  Unfortunately that was not how most would go.  So of course, I began to think about all of them.  Not just one, or two, but all of them; literally hundreds of people.  Then I thought about all of the other cops out there and their hundreds of dead people.   The thing that I always found the most tragic were those people who had passed away and no one was there.  No one even noticed they were gone.  The neighbor who lives 10 feet away hadn’t noticed.  How sad to die alone, with only cops and paramedics to witness how you spent your last moments on earth.

In the beginning, I used to really obsess over this.  It troubled me so much that I would call my grandparents 3 or 4 times a day just to make sure they were okay.  Of course they didn’t know that, they just thought I was being kind.  It became my biggest fear that someone I cared for or knew would die alone.  Both of my grandparents passed away this last year, my grandpa with his children and my grandma by his side and then my grandmother just recently the day after New Years, while I was holding her hand.  While I often pray that everyone has this blessing, sadly we know in law enforcement that it is not always the case.

When we would arrive at those dead body calls, we would try to provide closure for that person, or that “incident.”  Over the years I spent so much time trying to get through the calls that they became no different than taking a shoplifting report.  Follow the steps, get the right information, do your best, and of course make light of the situation.  The number of dead bodies I have stood in a room with and just chatted about the décor in the house, what I was doing that week, or what I had for lunch would probably shock any “normal” person, but not any “normal” cop.  Normal has a whole different meaning when you are dealing with the things the public does not want to see or know about.

Eventually, you retire.  That is where things get interesting for some of us.  I am reminded of watching a child who has had too much activity in a day.  At the end of the day, they start to wind up, bordering on totally out of control.  They laugh, they scream, they run around like a maniac, and then just as dramatically, they collapse.  If you don’t get them to bed it is like Satan himself has arrived.  In a law enforcement career, you stay up so often that you never come all the way back down.  There is never really time to process all the things that you are seeing or doing because after one, you are onto the next.  That is part of what makes it such an exciting career.  At the end, when there are no more incidents to respond to, the information can begin to overload.  Much like that child, you can get wound up and in danger of collapsing.  I slept a lot in the very beginning of retirement.  No phone to go off in the middle of the night, no crisis to address at 0200, nowhere to be anytime that day, that week, that month.

It has been about 6 months since I retired.  Now I wake up a lot.  I roam around the house, pet the dogs, check the security system, maybe surf the Internet.  This isn’t new; during years of working late nights it was often difficult to find a sleeping routine that lasted.  Now the cause for waking up is one of those memories.  Remembering the sound of bones popping when trying to put someone in a body bag because they died in an unusual position, or using multiple bags because of the mess made when they died and melted on the floor of their apartment during a southern Arizona summer.  As I write this, I worry that someone will read it and think we someone don’t care about someone’s life because we make jokes while maggots are crawling out of someone’s nose.  The caring cop is the one that will try to retrieve your beloved cat from under the bed you died in knowing that Fluffy ate your nose.   No normal human being can do things like that day after day, year after year without making inappropriate comments or making jokes.  Mentally, a person could break.  Many of us do.

We are hearing a lot more about cumulative post traumatic stress these days.  I am so thankful that agencies are beginning to recognize it as a legitimate problem.  Now, whether I have a healthy mind or not is probably a matter of opinion.  It is helpful for me to try to think about all of the cases because it causes me to “go through the motions” and think about them like “cases” not people.  I have a pretty healthy respect for Heaven and Hell and what happens to our souls when we die.  That alone has saved me.  It is a lot easier to address the horror if your belief system permits you to put that person “in a better place” so you can do your job.  Or in other cases, in purgatory (or worse) because of what they did before they died.

Make sure you are keeping your memories in their place.  They are cases, they are or were your job.  There are far too many to try to carry them around forever.  We have to find ways to look at them, clean them up, and put them away.  Memories fade they say, and there are so many I would like to see go.  I wish I had started writing at the beginning of my career, just so that I could accurately recall things, but then again perhaps it is better that they are not readily available for me.  Trying to sort it all, much like playing a game of Tetris, helps me to keep them where they should be and not allow them to do any more damage.   If you cannot do it on your own, then you call someone who will help you do it.  Over the years I have made that call.  It helps, I promise that it does.  It is never a “one and done” magic pill.  You deserve to retire and live a full, healthy life.

There are so many organizations out there to help law enforcement and other first responders.  Make the call, get the help, and take care of your circle.

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